Archived entries for Recurring Concepts in Art

Urbanism and the Importance of Place in Media Art

Following is the abstract for my final, research paper for Recurring Concepts in Art.

The ubiquity of cellular telephones has transformed communication habits across dense urban centers. The location-aware functionality of many of these devices—via text messaging, GPS, and/or cell tower triangulation—allows individuals to navigate and experience space differently. As with other forms of urban sensing, this has implications well beyond fixing ourselves within Cartesian coordinates. For artists and designers, the medium of location brings with it both a historical context and an opportunity to add layers of meaning and experience to the urban landscape. This paper will seek to outline the development of current mapping technologies, review the work of some artists incorporating locative media into their practice, and consider possibilities for future exploration.

As an additional dimension to the research, I am recording the locations of my work on the paper here.

Dimensional Hanging Compositions

Title Page

Theory, text, interpretation, dialog, iteration, publication—all of these play an important role in contemporary artistic practice. Conversation is a foundational component of works both conceptual and referential. Accordingly, lots of verbal interaction and reading has accompanied the first half of this semester in Recurring Concepts in Art. Every other week, students are asked to submit a paper in response to ideas and work that have come up in class. For the midterm project, in which we’re asked to make a piece that is not technology-based, a paper summarizing the collaborative project is also expected. In our project, the paper itself occupies a central role.

Before the Performance

The idea to explore a text-based piece—or at least one in which text is foundational—derives from a text parsing project of Alex Kauffman’s design. For this work, lines of text are meticulously cut out of a sheet and reconstituted as a typographic system. With that as a starting point, the three of us moved through conversations about poetry, détournement, perspective, layering, and modes of production. Often we were not meeting together at the same time and a process of synthesis and translation resulted from the intermediate conversations. This, too, produced an interesting dynamic that would eventually feed into the project.

Trilingual Paper

For Dimensional Hanging Compositions. Illusions and Words. Discussions:, we’ve approached a text-based project by way of performance. In this performance, the paper summarizing our work is read aloud by each member of the group at differing intervals to produce a circumference of overlapping spoken words. Each of us grew up speaking a different language: English, Spanish, and Korean. Therefore, we chose to stage the reading in each of these languages simultaneously. The three of us each stand with our backs to different walls of the room, facing the class now positioned within the space the table encloses. Before each student, a blank piece of paper, a glue stick, a pair of scissors, and a page from our midterm paper is set. With “Please make a new text.” projected on the fourth wall and the materials’ visual clues to guide them, participants begin to cut up and re-compose the text as it’s performed around them. The result is three-fold—a shared experience, a sound recording of spoken word and scissors cutting paper, and multiple versions of the paper including the “original” and the new ones assembled with the original’s palette of words.

The paper’s original composition is also a product of three distinct efforts, synthesized with a cut-and-paste collaboration. Having decided on the direction and conceptual underpinnings of the project, each of us wrote our own three-page paper to describe the work. We then met together with printouts of the texts and engaged in a literal editorial process much like the one students enact during the performance. Spreading the pages out on a table, we cut up and rearranged the sentences to produce a final version incorporating the strengths and insights of each. Once assembled, the new text is again typed into a document that is also the script and medium of our interaction.

A new text by Georgia Krantz

It’s our hope that the piece operate on a number of levels as a study of the communication process and an act of production. It’s interesting to us that audience participation results in a kind of assembly line of work on predetermined parts, which could be viewed as either uniquely liberating or confining to the point of frustration. Either way, the product of each person’s efforts is valued for its contribution to the piece as a whole. In the end, Dimensional Hanging Compositions transgresses the project’s stated limitation. While proceeding from the technology that is the written word, though, it appeals to our desire for authentic shared experience, intellectual engagement, and an archival, physical object to refer back to.

Universal Non/Fictions

I.

It is very beneficial—even necessary—for me to have a critical theory class in conjunction with my studio/lab classes at ITP. It gets me outside of the projects I’m working on, floating above them in the realm of theory, gathering information and experiences before returning with a renewed perspective out of which old ideas are refined and new ones are born. It also gets me out of the classroom and into parts of the city I wouldn’t otherwise make time to visit. Just as autumn sets in, I recently found myself on a bench in Central Park, across from the Guggenheim Museum, reading through texts on synaesthesia, color and sound, the development of abstract painting, and Wassily Kandinsky’s position therein. Indeed it was Kandinsky who occasioned our supplanting from the East Village to the Upper East Side to gather around a retrospective of his paintings within the spiraling Frank Lloyd Wright structure.

Guggenheim Museum from Central Park

I’d not been to the Guggenheim before, despite the fact that I moved to New York four years ago this month, and it was good to visit for the first time as a group to engage with the work. Having the class comprised somewhat evenly of people with an art background and those with other backgrounds allows for a freshness that is rare around discussions of modern and contemporary art. So the fifteen-or-so of us congregated around paintings to make observations, responding to Kandinsky’s canvases with emotion, analysis, and playfulness as well. It was interesting to note how the size—and, perhaps, energy—of our group drew other patrons into the discussion. I was reminded of how much people want to experience art together, to make sense of it collectively. Probably seeing people around a particular piece also gives the impression of an importance that shouldn’t be overlooked. Either way, together we traveled through Kandinsky’s development as we sloped our way upward, glancing across the open space to take in colors still fresh in our collective memories.

There is a feeling of pilgrimage about going up the Guggenheim that might not be inappropriate to Kandinsky’s work. The relationship of color and sound he was exploring seems to have lead him through a spiritual awakening. Living through two wars and experiencing displacement during each, Kandinsky was undoubtedly disillusioned by the violence of his time and, like his modern counterparts, sought liberation through the construction of a universal something—in his case, language. You can’t help but appreciate the optimism of such a project. Even though its outcome is more aesthetically emancipatory than socially, Kandinsky offers us possibility, emotional energy, and heightened sensory awareness.

II.

A Journey that wasn't, Pierre Huyghe, 2005

Returning to the scene of the park, a different search for a kind of utopia emerges in the work of Pierre Huyghe. In the fall of 2005, Central Park’s ice skating rink set the stage for a dramatic reinterpretation of an expedition the artist had taken to Antarctica earlier that year. A Journey that wasn’t plays with fiction and reality through the landscape of mediated experience. It is the product of several layers of development including a text laying out the motivation for the journey, the trip itself, its representation in Central Park, a video intertwining the latter two, and subsequent installations that combine multimedia with sculpture and immersive architectural elements. The scope of the project, to say the least, is impressive but what really interests me about Huyghe’s work is his ability to incorporate uncannily seductive forms of representation to draw an observer in while maintaining a complex level of criticality.

Pierre Huyghe, influenced by ideas coming out of the Situationist movement and the writings of Guy Debord, Victor Segalen, and those associated with the Frankfurt School, approaches media with a skeptical embrace. He’s keenly aware of a tendency within global capitalism to incorporate and homogenize peoples in subtle but far-reaching ways. Images and representations, at the level of spectacle, powerfully reinforce ways of thinking and modes of consumption that further the will of the market. By setting up a scenario around Antarctica’s remote shores, Huyghe is addressing the notion of the other, its comprehensibility, and the translation of experience through images. Where Wassily Kandinsky aspired to a universal language, Huyghe builds barriers and questions the possibility of real understanding between people groups.

A Journey that wasn't, Pierre Huyghe, 2005

A Journey that wasn’t helps us to reconsider how contemporary art can provoke serious conversation, challenge existing socio-economic structures, and invite participation in a compelling, if fragmented, narrative of exploration. It is from a position of privilege that Huyghe is able to realize his projects—the conclusions of which I am, at times, in sharp disagreement with—but I appreciate that he is engaged with both politics and aesthetics. As one who values deeply the interfacing of different cultures, sincere communication, and the mutual respect it necessitates, I believe in forces more powerful than the market to draw people together. Hopefully, my own work can be an affirmation of these ideals without failing to recognize the struggle that is its counterpart.

Situating Ourselves Within the New

Often, when asked about my graduate education, I try to describe ITP as an art school program focused on new media technologies. This shorthand is useful but always raises more questions about the nature of the curriculum. “Like PowerPoint?” one person wondered about new media. I’m regularly reminded that this term means all sorts of things to different people and the task of situating it in our present moment is, in part, the work of this program. At the same time, it never ceases to surprise and reorient me to recognize all of the precedents that previous generations of artists and designers have set in their explorations of art and technology.

Creek, Robert Rauschenberg, 1964

Robert Rauschenberg’s multifaceted practice levels a kind of challenge to the newness of so-called “new media art.” My experience of Rauschenberg’s work has been limited primarily to his paintings and combines, with some exposure to his installations. In the 1960’s, however, an ongoing collaboration with engineers at Bell Telephone Laboratories was initiated that deepens my appreciation for the scope of his vision—and the role of technological research as a catalyst for new ideas. Rauschenberg recognized that the technical limitations he confronted alone could be overcome by working with professionals dealing with similar issues in the context of business and industry. Their expertise and knowledge of recent developments provided a framework within which experimental ideas could be actualized while the artist’s non-traditional applications stretched the ingenuity and flexibility of the engineer.

9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering stands out among the early projects resulting from this cross-pollination of disciplines. A series of performances that occurred in New York during October of 1966, 
9 Evenings pushed the boundaries of concept and technique at the scale of an arena. For the opening sequence, Robert Rauschenberg worked with Billie Klüver and fellow engineers at Bell Laboratories to stage Open Score, which unfolds as a sonic tennis match, a live infrared television triptych, and an amorphous vocal performance. Watching a video recording and reading descriptions of the performance, I can imagine how transfixed the audience must have been with the multimedia experience of Open Score. It’s clear that, for those involved, it was a deeply meaningful engagement; and out of those conversations, Experiments in Art and Technology, a loose collective of artists and engineers, was formed.

Open Score, Robert Rauschenberg, 1966

Twelve years later, in 1979, the first graduate program in alternative media was launched at New York University. It’s difficult not to think of ITP’s inauguration without reference to the artistic activity surrounding E.A.T. and new communication technologies in general. When discussing the program’s history, Red Burns cites the Portapak video recorder as an emerging technology that revolutionized documentary filmmaking by putting it into the hands of individuals. Here again we have a collaboration (albeit one step removed) between engineers—who managed to fit video equipment into a portable interface—and directors who took it to the streets. But ITP did not become a supplement to NYU’s film program, it sought a new level of engagement with its audience—the kind of engagement I’m seeking in my own work. Still today, ITP seems to define itself not by a specific medium, but by a specific approach, the hallmarks of which include creativity, innovation, diversity, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

What I think differentiates what we’re trying to do today from what Rauschenberg and his circle were doing is the nature of that collaboration. It seems there was a clearer delineation in Experiments in Art and Technology between the role of the artist and that of the engineer, a greater distance to cross in order for both sides to meet. Furthermore, from an engineering standpoint, Rauschenberg’s work was essentially reactive, rather than interactive. That is to say, the action was occurring in one direction, instead of generating new information from both ends that could produce unexpected results. And while it’s clear there is still a great need for experts without whom ideas could not be realized, I think the depth of crossover between art and science—not to mention other disciplines—is indicative of our less segmented, post-industrial modes of production. Artists should be in laboratories. Scientists should be in studios.

Note for Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg

So maybe “interactive telecommunications” as a concept, despite being 30 years old and inconveniently polysyllabic, still retains a great deal of relevance to the vision of the program—and new media—in its contemporary context. Telecommunications, which might first bring to mind telephony, carries a much more general and immediate significance. Tele-, from the Greek for “far off,” combined with communication, from the Latin verb for “to share,” implies “sharing at a distance.” This is the constant challenge for the communicator in general and the artist in particular. And while the distance between the self and the other remains, the possibility of making a real connection with people, whether through performance or sound, text or multimedia, continues to move us.

Interactivity, for its part, is one dimension of new media that has drawn me to this place. Not only would I like to incorporate a new layer of dialogue into my current practice, but I’m interested in allowing new technologies to inform and guide the work in new directions. What that will look like is yet to be seen but it will consciously exist in relationship to its antecedents.



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